Theater needs ‘Design on a Dime’ approach

By Jeff Linville -
Jeff Linville News Editor -

As any readers of my weekly column knows, I’m a movie fanatic and sports nut.

On the other hand, my best friend likes to watch a lot of the “good” reality TV shows. You know, not the drama-filled malarkey of “Real Housewives” or “The Bachelor,” but rather the documentary category of home improvements and cooking competitions.

Having viewed a few episodes of several different shows, it became quite obvious that some folks have really extravagant tastes, and others know how to get by on a tight budget.

If you gave the crews of two different shows $10,000, you’d get wildly different results.

One show might spend all $10,000 on the sofa, then ask for more to complete refurbishing on the rest of the living room. The other show would somehow stretch that $10,000 out to make small differences all over the home. If you gave the crew some more money, then more work could be done, but otherwise they could make do with their original budget.

“Design on a Dime” proves that you don’t have to spend a ton of money to enhance a room.

I’ve seen bikers buy a used bike for, say, $5,000, then spend another thousand on parts and create a great-looking, fine-tuned machine. Then again, I met a fellow with a Honda Gold Wing who spent $10,000 on a custom paint job. No joke. He had figures from Greek mythology painted around the gas tank with his head on Zeus’ body, his wife as Hera and his kids and grandkids as some of Zeus’ offspring.

That motorcycle has been on my mind this week while reading Tom Joyce’s coverage of the Barter Theatre discussions at City Hall.

From what I gather, the city is looking to renovate a former Spencer’s building into a $13.1-$13.5 million theater. Even with federal monies and tax credits, the city is looking at spending $3.6 million out of pocket, or most likely taking on debt and racking up a lot of interest.

As if that weren’t enough outlay, the theater group is also expecting the city to help support the operating costs to the tune of $100,000 to $600,000 a year.

Compare this with, oh say, constructing a very nice shell building in an industrial park for a couple hundred thousand.

Once the building is finished, you can sell it to an interested party and recoup some of your expenses. Then, the new owner pays property tax on the land and building that will eventually repay the rest of the construction costs.

With the Barter Theatre, the city would still own the building, so there would be no sales dollars. And since the city would own it, there would be no property tax revenue coming in.

The theater group says the city could collect a $5 fee per ticket sold, but that doesn’t really help if the group turns right around and expects the municipality to give it hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep its operations going.

Am I saying that I’m against the arts? Certainly not. I’ve attended several plays over the years at the Andy Griffith Playhouse. When I worked in Greensboro, I patroned the Barn Dinner Theatre several times. As I said, I’m a movie buff, so plays fit right in my wheelhouse.

What I care about, to borrow a phrase from Commissioner Eddie Harris, is seeing people be good stewards of taxpayer money.

Is a Barter Theatre going to bring additional people to Mount Airy, or is it simply going to steal traffic away from the Andy Griffith Playhouse, resulting in no net gain?

If the theater is going to be so successful that the city prospers, then why does the management group need hundreds of thousands of dollars to make ends meet?

One point mentioned in the Feb. 1 meeting was the potential for educational outreach programs. The Surry Arts Council already has been doing this for 30 years. In fact, for several years, the arts council received a state grant for $80,000 to sponsor a youth program for at-risk kids. The council kept the program going until the grant was eliminated.

The city could have stepped in and taken over support of that at-risk program itself, but chose not to do so. The arts council couldn’t afford to do it on its own as $80,000 was as much or more than its whole contribution received from the city in those days. In recent years, the city’s funding to the Surry Arts Council has been $87,500 for the past few years.

What Tanya Jones and her staff manage to do with just $87,500 a year is quite remarkable. They are the “Design on a Dime” of the arts.

Could the Barter Theatre do as much with so little funding? No way. Tanya knows everyone and isn’t afraid to ask for help. If she can’t get enough donations to pay for something, she’ll work out a deal with the vendor to make it happen.

The arts council puts on events at the playhouse, the Blackmon Amphitheater, the Historic Earle Theatre and the Andy Griffith Museum and costs the city taxpayers just $87,500. How much more could this group do if it were given an extra $100,000 to $600,000 a year like is being discussed for Barter?

In the past 30 years, the Surry Arts Council has only received about $2 million in operating expense from the city. The Barter Theatre could equal that in three or four years.

If the city board truly believes spending $13 million on a new theater is a great idea, then go for it. But put the frugal director in charge of it who would figure out a way to break even without needing more and more money from the city budget.

Jeff Linville News Editor Linville News Editor

By Jeff Linville

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.